Stagecoach • Peak Hollywood • The Western
Greenscreening Series #10
October 21, 2022
October 21, 2022
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This is where it all started. John Ford’s smash hit and enduring masterpiece Stagecoach revolutionized the western, elevating it from B movie to the A-list and establishing the genre as we know it today. The quintessential tale of a group of strangers thrown together into extraordinary circumstances, Stagecoach features outstanding performances from Hollywood stalwarts Claire Trevor, John Carradine, and Thomas Mitchell, and, of course, John Wayne, in his first starring role for Ford, as the daredevil outlaw the Ringo Kid. Superbly shot and tightly edited, Stagecoach (Ford’s first trip to Monument Valley) is Hollywood storytelling at its finest. -The Criterion Collection
Find Stagecoach via Reelgood
Film buffs love to argue about the GOAT when it comes to films and directors, but some of the liveliest discussions I've been part of were about the best movie year ever. Some make the case for 1999, when you had The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, Magnolia, All About My Mother, The Green Mile, Toy Story 2, and others. You could make a case for 2019, with Parasite, Little Women, The Irishman, Marriage Story, Knives Out, Jojo Rabbit, 1917, Pain and Glory, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and even Avengers: Endgame. That's a fantastic year for movies.
But 1939 was peak Hollywood.
In 1939, Hollywood was coming out of the Great Depression and celebrating its own greatness. It was like a capstone year for the studio system; 12 years after the birth of sound, and in the early days of color, Hollywood had cemented its artistic style and exported it around the world.
That year, there were 10 Best Picture nominees, with classics from multiple genres represented:
Among the greats: - Gone With the Wind, the historical epic - The Wizard of Oz, fantasy/musical - Stagecoach, western - Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, political drama - Ninotchka, comedy - Goodbye, Mr. Chips, drama - Dark Victory, drama - Love Affair, romance - Of Mice and Men, prestige literary adaptation - Wuthering Heights, prestige literary adaptation
The only genre that didn't have a certified classic that year was horror.
Viewing 1939 as a high water mark is largely influenced by what followed: WWII breaking out that year and the looming threat of antitrust suits which would break up the studio system.
While this list represents Hollywood operating at just about the highest level possible, two blockbusters stand above the rest. Two massive, big-budget films shot in glorious Technicolor.
Gone With the Wind was the biggest film since Birth of a Nation, a fellow Civil War and Reconstruction epic, and every bit as problematic historically.
Based on a 1936 best-selling novel, Gone tells the story of an American plantation owner’s daughter during the Civil War and Reconstruction, as she pursues one man, but marries another. The film is epic in scope, yet also deeply intimate in its central love story. In this way, it became the model for later roadshow epics like Doctor Zhivago, The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, and Lawrence of Arabia.
The film was a sensation. Despite its runtime (just a hair under 4 hours), audiences couldn't get enough of it. Gone With the Wind remains the highest grossing film ever made, adjusted for inflation, with all-time earnings over $3.9B. The film won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Hattie McDonald became the first African American actress to win an Oscar, winning the Best Supporting Actress role. Just as we saw when looking at Birth of a Nation, this was a film that everyone at the time was familiar with, the Titanic of its day.
Gone With the Wind contains many iconic images - thanks to the glorious Technicolor cinematography - many involving Clark Gable's Rhett Butler locked in embrace with Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara, as the shot shown above. And lots of quotable lines. "Tomorrow is another day," and "frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" are two of the most classic quotes in movie history.
However, the film is controversial for perpetuating the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” myth of the South, which argued the Civil War was fought to protect the South’s economic interests and states’ rights, rather than to protect the institution of slavery. The film portrays slavery positively, where slaves are content and treated well before the war, in contrast to the tragedy and pain everyone suffers as the O’Hara family struggles to keep their plantation together through and after the Civil War. It’s full of stereotypes and melodrama, just like Birth of a Nation.
Gone With the Wind became a central film in debates about representation and racism in media in 2020, in the wake of protests following the murder of George Floyd. HBO decided to remove Gone With the Wind from its streaming platform, citing its harmful ethnic and racial prejudices. Immediately after the film was removed from HBO Max, it jumped to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list. HBO subsequently announced that the film would return to the streaming service in its original form, accompanied by discussion of historical context and a denouncement of the prejudiced depictions of African Americans.
Gone With the Wind may be the all-time box office champ, but according to the Library of Congress, The Wizard of Oz is the most-seen movie in history.
This is remarkable given that it was a modest box office success in its day. It wasn't a flop, but it was incredibly expensive to make, so MGM lost over $1M on its initial run. Only after re-releases did it start making money.
Television played a key role in the film's success, as in the early '50s, MGM sold the TV rights on the cheap, and the TV premiere was such a success that it became an annual tradition.
The Wizard of Oz is the quintessential screen portrayal of childhood insecurities, dreams, and imagination.
Very few films have contributed as much to the world's lexicon. It's ridiculously quotable: "There's no place like home." "We're not in Kansas anymore." Its details have become cultural metaphors: The yellow brick road, the Wicked Witch, the man behind the curtain. The songs are beloved throughout the world, from "Over the Rainbow" to "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" to "If I Only Had a Brain." Has another film's music so perfectly suit the story?
While it wasn't the first film to use color, it was probably the first film to use color. A yellow brick road. A green-colored witch. Red ruby slippers. Imagine being a child or an adult in 1939, and seeing the door from Dorothy's black and white house open to reveal the colorful world of Oz. I wasn't there, but I can tell you that eyes got wide, people gasped, and everyone grinned.
This might be the greatest scene in film history. It's one of the purest expressions of delight at what movies can do: to transport us to a magical world that radiates more brightly than real life often does. Really any kind of storytelling can do this, but until the metaverse takes us away, the movies are the closest thing we have to a full sensory immersion in another world. In his book, Movies are Prayers, critic Josh Larsen argues that movies express our deepest longings, whether that's for justice, for love, for deeper meaning, or a place where you can be yourself. Oz, for so many people, is a picture of how the world could be - and the wonder and joy on Judy Garland's face invites us to feel the same way.
The film (not the book) has also inspired several hit spinoffs and remakes, including The Wiz and Wicked. You could argue it prefigured or kickstarted the current trend of reboots and prequels.
And perhaps its greatest legacy was inspiring generations of storytellers. One of the most surprising? Author Salman Rushdie, who claimed that seeing the film as a child "made a writer of me."
What image comes to mind when you think about a Western? Two cowboys poised for a gunfight, standing opposite one another in the dustry street of an old town? Or maybe it's a group of outlaws playing poker in a saloon, or robbing a bank? Or maybe the image of one or two lonesome cowboys riding horseback through a wide expanse, dwarfed by mountains or red rocks.
The Western is a type of American historical fiction; not necessarily of specific historical incidents, but of a historical time. Specifically, the Western connects audiences with America's past, from about 1830 to 1900. The Western depicts the frontier, and the associated spirit of exploration and pioneering that is almost uniquely American in the modern world.
The Western also depicts the wilderness, and is therefore related to classic adventures like Robinson Crusoe and the work of Jack London. The American wilderness is connected to the spiritual (America, the New World, was the new Eden) and the physical (wilderness is rugged, tough and unforgiving, dangerous and even savage). It represents the tug between chaos and order, between civilization and anarchy, between peace and violence.
The Western has a lot to say about masculinity and femininity. But make no mistake, the West is a man's world, and the Western is a man's movie genre. Women often represent an alternative path for the central hero; a way to retire from the frontier life and its violence. Women usually condemn violence, only to end up needing the man to use violence to protect them from the threat of evil.
And the Western has a lot to say about violence, mostly about its necessity in certain situations. Along with the gangster film, the Western is the other film genre where guns are central, essential. Guns represent both law and lawlessness; crime and punishment. The Western hero is proficient in using a gun, and typically lives by a code for when it should be used.
In this way, the Western is a descendent of tales of King Arthur and his knights of the round table. In the same way that Arthur's knights live by the code of chivalry, in the Western, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.
But the Western is at its best when a man can't quite figure out what it is that he's gotta do, when it's not clear whether justice and the law are in alignment. For example, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne argue about whether violence is needed to combat a terrorist gang. Or many years later, in Unforgiven, with Clint Eastwood's retired bounty hunter deciding to hunt again, wondering whether this killing might redeem him, or make him the man he was before.
Prior to Stagecoach, Westerns were cheap entertainment. Most were b-movies, shot as quickly as possible and with little dialogue, but plenty of melodrama and plenty of chases.
Tom Mix was the biggest star of silent to early sound Westerns. He was less a cowboy or gunslinger and more of a dude, a fashion icon. Look at that fancy outfit and giant hat.
Opposite Tom Mix, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were the singing cowboys of the 1930s. After all, now that movies could talk, they could sing. They were mostly recording stars, but their movies capitalized on this success.
What a difference Stagecoach represents. While the film delivers the goods of what you expect from a Western, this doesn't feel like a b-movie. It's a serious attempt at art. This is where the genre as we know it was born.
But viewed from our lens today, it probably feels unoriginal.
As Roger Ebert writes:
That's because it influenced countless later movies in which a mixed bag of characters are thrown together by chance and forced to survive an ordeal. The genre is sometimes called the Ark Movie. The film at times plays like an anthology of timeless clichés. You will see a woman going into labor as a doctor orders, "Boil water! Hot water! And lots of it!" You will meet a prostitute with a heart of gold, and an evil banker, and a shifty gambler, and a pure-hearted heroine, and murderous Apaches, and a sultry Indian wife, and a meek little traveling man, and a chase scene with a stagecoach driver going hell for leather. You will see saloons, corrals, vast landscape, camp fires, and the U. S. Cavalry--which sounds the charge before riding to the rescue."
Ford takes his time letting the characters reveal themselves, earning emotional payoffs. Critics, including Ebert, have pointed out how democratic or populist the film feels, where the characters become a community, given equal weight, and with their interdependency emphasized.
The stunts are incredible. Earlier in the series, when we watched excerpts from Birth of a Nation, we saw hyper-realistic Civil War re-enactments, where people were literally getting flung off their horses, and fireworks going off a bit too close for comfort. Stagecoach's stunts have that feeling. There's no CGI or special effects here. John Wayne's stuntman, Yakima Canutt, was a champion rodeo rider, and he really does jump around on the horses at full gallop. In fact, Canutt portrayed both Wayne and some of the Apaches during the sequence, because he was so darn good, and reckless.
Ford shot the film on location in Monument Valley, Utah, where he would shoot many subsequent Westerns. The scenery adds to the epic scale and the myth of the story.
Stagecoach is also emblematic of the Western genre's history of unfortunate portrayals of Native Americans. In Stagecoach, the Apaches aren't given any semblance of character. They simply exist as a threat to the White travelers. For decades, even as Hollywood tried to become more equitable, filmmakers rarely depicted Native American characters outside of Westerns, or in a way that didn't conform to the war party or "noble savage" trope.
John Ford was one of the most important and influential directors of Hollywood's Golden Age.
Working from the silent era through the 1960s, Ford directed over 140 films in his career. He directed three of the greatest Westerns, with Stagecoach, The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1963), along with classics in other genres, including The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941) The Quiet Man (1952). He holds the record for the most Best Director Oscars (4).
Ford earned the respect of his peers, and influenced many directors we're going to cover in this series, ranging from Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Sergio Leone, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and as we'll see next time, Orson Welles.
Welles claimed that he saw Stagecoach 40 times while preparing to direct his debut, Citizen Kane.
Among Ford's trademarks are loner / outsider protagonists who prefer action over words, beautiful location cinematography (particularly in Monument Valley, Utah) and contrasting humans and nature in sweeping wide shots. He rarely used close-ups, instead preferring to stay on medium and wide shots; his were men of action, not of emotion, and were loners, so you couldn't get too close. Ford used many visual motifs, including modes of transportation, roads, doorways, rivers. Doorways in particular are crucial, separating insiders and outsiders, and to distinguish between civilization and wilderness.
Ford's legacy was cemented by his elevating the Western to a respectable and bankable mainstream American movie genre, first with Stagecoach. Most of what we picture in a Western comes from John Ford's style. In many ways, this makes him the quintessential American movie director, as his films and the broader Western genre have had tremendous influence on American mythology and identity. And John Wayne was Ford's muse, his ideal everyman hero.
Before he was John Wayne, or the Duke, he was Marion Morrison.
He didn't love his given name. But he loved his pet dog, Duke, who used to walk to and from school with young Marion. He earned the nickname, "Little Duke," which later became Duke.
His family moved to the Los Angeles area in the 1910s, so Wayne grew up like most children of the era, going to the movies. Later in life, he claimed he used to go four or fives times per week as a child.
He attended USC on a football scholarship, and during summers worked at movie studios. His football career ended after a surfing accident, and he lost his scholarship and began working in the movies full time.
During the silent era, he crewed and played a bunch of bit parts in films directed by John Ford, and the two became friends. Wayne was charismatic and fun-loving, so he had no trouble making friends. It's partly what made him a star: capturing that magnetic persona on screen.
Ford thought Wayne could be a solid leading man in Westerns, and recommended Wayne for the starring role in Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail, the first major studio talking Western. The Big Trail was a massive flop, and Wayne spent the rest of the '30s scraping by in b-movies.
When Ford decided to direct Stagecoach as his first Western in a decade, he insisted on casting Wayne as the Ringo Kid. He was so insistent on this fact that he declined one studio's financing when they demanded he replace Wayne with Gary Cooper.
Turns out, it was the right call. Wayne matured over the decade hustling for work, and brought this sense of experience to his roles.
The dolly shot that introduced John Wayne to mainstream audiences is one of the iconic shots in movie history. A real star's entrance.
John Wayne went on to appear in over 100 features between 1940 and the mid 1970s. He became one of the most reliable box office stars of the 20th Century. On a Mount Rushmore of Hollywood, John Wayne would appear alongside Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, and... I don't know, maybe Tom Cruise? James Dean? Mickey Mouse? Let the Discord debate begin.
Like the other megastars, John Wayne's image transcended the screen. He didn't need to be a terrific actor disappearing into character; his roles required him to be John Wayne. Big, strong, tough, a bit ornery, capable riding a horse, able to throw a good punch and take the best one someone could dish out, and with a lot of swagger in his step. His face was a canvas that stories could be projected upon, mostly epic adventures in a rough wilderness. As the Western represented a certain idea of America and American history, John Wayne represented a certain idea of American-ness, particularly American masculinity, not just to American audiences, but to the world.
A quick story to illustrate this transcendent star power.
When Nikita Khrushchev, former President of the Soviet Union, visited the US during the 1960s, he had two requests: visit Disneyland and meet John Wayne. He couldn't do the first for security reasons, but the second happened. This is somewhat peculiar because as the Cold War simmered, Wayne had become an outspoken political conservative. He especially loved to decry the evils of communism. Nevertheless, Khrushchev was a huge fan of Wayne's movies, and against regulation, had them imported and dubbed into Russian.
The two met at a gala in Hollywood. Khrushchev mentioned he had heard Wayne liked to drink, and extolled the virtues of Russian vodka. Wayne countered with the merits of Mexican tequila. Khrushchev invited him to the bar, where they sampled a few of each other's favorites, which escalated into a drinking contest. The drinks kept flowing, and neither man was willing to back down. Finally, aides stepped in to break it up before things got out of hand.
Later that year, Wayne received a large, mysterious package at his office, marked USSR. Wayne's secretary was nervous and wondered if they should call the police, but Wayne insisted they open it. The box was crammed full of bottles of high-end Russian vodka, and a note from Khrushchev: "Duke. Merry Christmas. Nikita." Wayne returned the favor, sending Khrushchev a crate of his favorite Mexican tequila, with his own note: "Nikita. Thanks. Duke."
Wayne wasn't highly regarded as an actor, even by John Ford, who remarked after seeing Wayne's performance in Howard Hawks' Red River (1948), "I didn't know the S.O.B. could act." Wayne himself said that Ford had taught him "not to act, but to react." The Duke finally received honors from his fellow filmmakers, winning a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in the original True Grit (1969).
What's your previous experience with Westerns? Do you generally enjoy them? Why or why not? What stands out to you about the genre?
How does the acting in Stagecoach compare with the acting in other films we've seen thus far in this series?
With Stagecoach representing peak Hollywood, what are some of the ways Hollywood progressed from the earliest films we watched? Contrast Stagecoach or either The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind with the previous high water mark of American filmmaking, Birth of a Nation. How had acting, cinematography, costumes, writing, and directing progressed?
What do you notice about John Ford's directorial style vs. Howard Hawks'? Do you prefer one style over the other?
Other classics from 1939:
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